Sacraments are a sign of God’s grace and forgiveness that came through Christ. Much more, sacraments are events that invites us to truly experience that grace. During the Reformation, Lutherans and Roman Catholics had an agreement on what a sacrament is but disagreed about exactly which of the sacraments conveyed the promise of Christ. Martin Luther, for instance, believed this was explicit only in baptism and the Eucharist.
Catholics, in formally declaring seven sacraments, turned to St. Augustine who was an early theological authority and he described sacraments as “the Word made visible.” Besides The sacraments we consider today, he also considered things such as Easter, preaching, the baptismal font, and ashes to be sacraments which are tangible experiences of God’s salvation.
Likewise, St. Leo the Great agreed that sacraments were effective signs of God’s redeeming work as especially seen in Christ. Like Augustine, he understood sacraments as God’s drawing humanity into a redemptive communion through the things humans might understand. Especially for Leo, sacraments had a rest on how salvation was seen and experienced through Christ and then through the multiplicity of sacraments perpetuating Christ’s presence.
More recently, Edward Schillebeeckx proposed how sacraments brought heaven and earth together. As Jesus is God, he made people on earth to experience God and heaven through his very being, mostly through his words and good works. As the church is the body of Christ, Sacrament gave people on earth the strength to experience God and heaven, especially through its preaching. By being like Christ, the church thus offers us an experience here and now of heavenly unity with God.
The seven sacraments give Catholics grace filled occasions by which we might remember and experience our resurrected friend, Jesus, in our midst. They are established not necessarily by explicit divine command, but by the very way in which Jesus Christ is with us, was with us, continues to be with us, and will be with us in heaven.